This article is more than 3 years old

Michelle Donelan trades tiers for fears

The minister has sent a couple of letters about the new English lockdown. Jim Dickinson dons his reading glasses.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

No, not Christmas – that (and guidance on it) will have to wait (even though it was to appear “shortly” in September). I’m talking about a new lockdown in England – and to mark the occasion Universities Minister Michelle Donelan has been busy sending letters, one for vice chancellors, and one for students.

Given you’re sitting comfortably on that new home office chair you got in August, let us begin with the letter to VCs:

Thank you to those of you who have already shared your questions with me. I want to reassure you that I recognise the implications of this decision for universities, students and staff.

…which I’ve done by writing to universities, students and… Well, just those two.

She adds:

I spoke to universities and mission groups yesterday…

[but not necessarily NUS or the trade unions]

…and I shall continue to work as closely as possible with the sector to support you — as always, my door remains open and I am happy to meet virtually on a one-to-one basis.”

There’s 412 providers on the OfS register today, so get in quick, heads of institution!

Any time now

The good news for those waiting on guidance is that it’s coming ”shortly”, which if it’s like the Christmas guidance will come on 2 December, or if it’s like the response to the TEF review, once the pandemic is over:

We are in the process of finalising guidance on what these new restrictions will mean for higher education and this will be available shortly.

If you’re wondering what it will say now, I’d suggest you have a read of the Wales fire break guidance for higher education and picture a group of civil service fast streamers changing it just enough to get through Turnitin.

I certainly wouldn’t be expecting anything new, and the letter has a bulleted trailer.

Stay put

First, the politics:

We are prioritising education to limit the gaps in students’ academic journey and lives”

…which is more of the “universities as big schools” slipstream we find the sector in.

Next, that stay at home stuff:

As for everyone under the new national restrictions from 5 November, students should stay in their current home. This means they should not leave their term time address to return to their parents or carer’s home until at least 2 December – and should continue to learn at university for the remainder of this term. The reason we are asking students to remain where they are and not to travel home before the new restrictions come into place is to prevent any further spread of Covid-19 — any movement around the country will risk the lives of our loved ones.

Is it really too much to ask that Ministers at least pretend to remember that hundreds of thousands of students commute to university?

I have urged students to stay where they are in order to save lives and I ask you to repeat this request to them. I know just how hard HEPs have worked to put in place measures to ensure teaching and learning is provided in Covid-secure environments, and we have not seen evidence of increased transmission within these environments. This supports our decision to keep universities open.

The twin assertions are revealing – maybe it’s true that students are so riddled with the virus that we have to be super careful about getting them home – yet if it’s not university campuses that have caused the transmission and amplification, then it surely must be their high-density, cramped living conditions – made even more cramped and high-density by increasing recruitment, slashing the capacity of campuses, and forcing students indoors. And we’re doing all of this again in January, only with plane-loads more international students?

No more tiers

You will recall that on Saturday evening, hares were set running when the guidance document from the Cabinet Office used language suspiciously similar to DfE “Education Tier of Restriction” 2:

Universities and adult education settings should consider moving to increased levels of online learning where possible.

…which then caused many a senior team to wonder whether theory should, indeed, move to their scenario-planned “Tier 2”, with providers issuing holding statements rather optimistically claiming that once detailed guidance was out, students would know more.

Remember DfE Tier 2 says:

HE providers should move to an increased level of online learning where possible. Providers should prioritise the continuation of face-to-face provision based on their own risk assessment. We expect that, in the majority of cases, this will be for those courses where it is most beneficial (for example, clinical or practical learning and research).

There’s no mention of tiers in Donelan’s letter, although we do get the following, which does sound an awful lot like Tier 2 albeit with some “benefits of face to face” bells and whistles on it:

We expect you to continue to make informed decisions with your local public health teams on the level of face-to-face teaching and learning to provide, based on appropriate risk-assessments and the needs of students and staff.

We do not, however, want or expect to see a transition to full online learning during the new national restrictions — this could jeopardise the learning that students receive, as well as risk their mental health and wellbeing. We want you to make informed local decisions whilst ensuring all students have some form of face to face learning, where possible and safe to do so.

Universities should continue to agree with their local public health teams the appropriate balance of online and in person teaching, based on the overall assessment of the public health risks, including to the mental health of students and the status of local outbreaks.

The order that “all students” should have some form of face to face learning should be interesting for PGRs, the international students that have been allowed to not even arrive yet, and will be news to those students on taught programmes who’ve not been allocated any this term (or indeed those in never-ending cycles of self-isolation). And what about those who don’t feel safe engaging with F2F (or the bus to get to it). You’d think the minister could at least give passing reference to the clinically vulnerable.

There’s also an open question on whether an hour of socially distant teaching in a freezing cold seminar room wearing visors with 2/3 of students missing because they’re self-isolating really is the mental health tonic that the minister thinks it is.

We’re also told that:

As a Government we also expect libraries and study spaces to remain open, where appropriate, with Covid-secure measures in place to support students to continue their studies.

Maybe the minister thinks that there’s plenty of places for students to sit and study left on campuses. There really aren’t – the capacity has either been super-slashed with Police tape, or repurposed into teaching space that’s barely being used because everyone’s self-isolating.

Oh, and if you’re still wondering about the Tiers, do remember that were hastily copied off of schools tiers, which don’t seem to be in any practical use either.

Quality takes time

Then the standard lines on “quality”:

We have been clear throughout this pandemic that HEPs must at all times maintain the quality of their tuition. If more teaching is moved online, providers must continue to comply with registration conditions relating to quality and standards. This means ensuring that courses provide a high- quality academic experience, students are supported and achieve good outcomes, and standards are protected.

DfE has also “worked with the Office for Students” who are “regularly reviewing online tuition” (with the words “regularly” and “reviewing” doing quite a bit of work there). Donelan also “expects students to continue to be supported and achieve good outcomes”, and would like to “reiterate that standards must be maintained”, whatever all of that means.

And then finally, the obligatory paragraph on student support:

This year has been very hard for students and university staff and for this very reason I remind you again of your responsibility when delivering services, including the provision of pastoral support, and taking steps to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of students and staff.

And if you were wondering whose job it is to do (or indeed fund) all of that, wonder no more:

I truly believe you are best placed to provide this support and it is vital that these services stay open and available to students in the coming weeks.

Dear students

Do students get told anything different? Not really. There’s the same “Harry Potter HE” boarder framing:

As for everyone under the new national restrictions from 5 November, you should stay in your current home. This means you should not leave your term time address to return to your parents’ or carer’s home until at least 2 December – and should continue to leam at university for the remainder of this term.

The reason we are asking you to remain at your university area and not to travel home before the new restrictions come into place on Thursday is to prevent any further spread of COVID 19 — any movement around the country will risk the lives of our loved ones.

I know and appreciate that a number of you may want to be back with your family during this difficult time, but I urge you to stay where you are in order to save lives. I can assure you that I will work with universities to ensure well-being, communications and mental health support are prioritised.

There’s the same message on face to face teaching:

We as a government recognise the importance of face to face teaching, including for your mental health and wellbeing, and we expect this to continue. Universities have worked hard to make teaching and learning COVID-secure, and we have not seen evidence of increased transmission within these environments. If you have any concerns, please do speak to your university — it is crucial that you and staff members feel safe.

And the same standard stuff on quality, albeit with the OIA added in.

Amazing things

So where does all that leave us? One of the more amazing things about this “stay where you are” thing is that we don’t know how many students are even supposed to be away from home and “at” university right now, let alone where they’re going if they’re going home between now and 25 December.

And not only do we not know how many students studying “away from home” are still there, we don’t know how much F2F has been scheduled and for how many students, we don’t know how much F2F teaching that is scheduled is happening, and we also don’t know how many are coming in for F2F teaching or would want to if it were offered.

We also don’t know how many students are being tested, how many students are self-isolating, or how many students have Covid-19. And there remain powerful, barely addressed incentives to avoid getting a test and avoid self-isolation.

But we do have a plan.

And anyway – if you had already scarpered and you were asked if you had, if you’re a home student you’d lie or else SLC would cut your loan. But if everyone in your cluster flat has gone, you only have a handful of F2F hours and all the facilities on campus are closed, why would you stay?

And more to the point – given Boris Johnson said in Parliament last night that “restrictions will end on December 2 whatever happens” and later added they would end “without a shred of a doubt”, is the “plan” really that students would then be put into their own two-week lockdown just to get them home for Christmas?

3 responses to “Michelle Donelan trades tiers for fears

  1. Ah yes, Michelle Donelan. As one of her constituents, I am all-too familiar with her ability to toe the party line – no matter how incoherent – without ever placing herself in a position where she might be held personally accountable for the consequences of her words and actions.

  2. More of the same bullshit, which won’t change until & unless the sector grows a pair and tells the government to foxtrot Oscar, which as such a disparate bunch is hardly likely to happen.

    Whilst campuses might be ‘covid-secure’, the s-TOO-DENSE, as against responsible students, are partying and spreading covid along with the usual diseases, the report in TheTab ( is being ignored by those who ‘can’t see the wood for the tree’s’.

    Our campus security has had a continuous battle with the partying in halls and the national closure of bars etc will only make that worse.

    And the director of student experience and educational planning wants even more face to face teaching as the undergrads are whingeing they’re not getting enough of it with the current ‘blend’.

    Still if the staff who’ve been contacted by the revised T&T to self isolate have a positive test large numbers won’t be available to deliver…

  3. Let’s talk about what’s *really* going on – they know that students are heading home, they know it, the Universities know it.

    The worry is that they all do it at the same time and cause a spike at the worse time so they are frankly happier for it to happen over a number of weeks.

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